Moslem troops, led by Tarik Ibn Zayid, successfully captured this peninsula (known at the time as Calpe) in AD 710. In honour of his achievement, Calpe was renamed ‘Gibel Tarik’, from where we get the name ‘Gibraltar’: the Mountain of Tarik. In keeping with their practices, and in thanksgiving to Allah, the Moslem troops built a fortress and constructed a mosque with a minaret at the southernmost part of Gibraltar, located just across from the North African coast. Once consolidated here, they marched into mainland Europe, conquering most of the Iberian Peninsula.
Six hundred years later, in 1309, Spanish King Ferdinand IV captured Gibraltar and expelled the Moslem troops back to Africa. The king converted the ancient mosque into a Christian shrine where the first statue of Our Lady of Europe was venerated. Conscious of its importance, the Moslems recaptured Gibraltar twenty-four years later in 1333 until Spanish King Henry IV, grandson of Ferdinand IV, recaptured Gibraltar in 1462 and restored the devotion to Our Lady of Europe initiated by Ferdinand. Once again the ancient mosque was transformed into a Christian shrine. There followed a period during which devotion to Our Lady of Europe spread throughout the Mediterranean.
Gibraltar was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession. The shrine was again plundered by the invading troops who stole all the valuables, mutilated the statue of Our Lady, severing her head and throwing the pieces over the cliff. These were later found and salvaged and taken to Algeciras.
The shrine remained in military hands until it was returned to the Church on 17 October 1961. The building was in a desperate state of disrepair, having been used as a store room, guard room and prison. A long process of restoration was ahead, before the statue of Our Lady of Europe and her shrine were reunited.
These pictures show the state of the shrine in 1961. Fr Louis Orfila (who was to become the shrine’s first rector for over 40 years) wrote: ‘The place was empty, drab, very damp and full of cobwebs, quite uncongenial to religious fervour. But in its own humble way, it was an impressive and historic beginning.’
It was with a view to turning this historic place into a peaceful house of prayer that Fr Orfila, together with his team of volunteers, set out to restore the small, dilapidated but significant temple.
Six years had to pass before, on 7 October 1967 , the ancient statue of Our Lady of Europe was returned to its shrine after 263 years!
In time, the shrine became fully worthy of prayer services. On the eve of his departure to attend the Second Vatican Council in Rome, Bishop Healy, Bishop of Gibraltar at the time, celebrated the Holy Eucharist there. That Mass, celebrated on 28 September 1962, was the first one to be held there for 258 years.
Bishop Rapallo, who succeeded Bishop Healy, consecrated the shrine on 5 October 1980. He successfully petitioned Rome to establish Our Lady of Europe as Principal Patroness of Gibraltar, and later to have the feast day of Our Lady of Europe on 5 May, the same day as the annual Europe Day.
In 1994, the Government of Gibraltar obtained European funding and partly financed the expansion and refurbishment of the shrine. The shrine’s simple architecture, though refurbished, maintains some Arabic ‘mosque’ features. Once works were completed, Bishop Bernard Devlin organised the Enthronement of Our Lady of Europe in her newly embellished shrine. The Papal Envoy Cardinal Josef Tomko, presided over the outdoor concelebrated Mass and enthronement ceremony, held on 10 May 1997.
In 2006, Bishop Charles Caruana, who succeeded Bishop Devlin, accepted a proposal that the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe be included in the European Marian Network.
In May 2009 during the 700th Anniversary Jubilee celebrations, Pope Benedict XVI presented the Shrine with the Golden Rose award.
In September 2010, the Shrine of Our Lady of Europe hosted the 2010 Annual Conference of the European Marian Network.
The World Youth Day Cross & Icon were taken in procession to the Shrine in April 2011, during its three-day stay in Gibraltar.